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Bridging the gap: A social mobility summit for Wales

Director of The Open University in Wales, Louise Casella, reflects on our recent social mobility summit and considers what comes next.

On 24 May over one hundred of us, from across universities, the third sector and government in Wales, came together to discuss what the Rt Hon Alan Milburn described as “the defining issue of our times” - social mobility.  The Open University in Wales was proud to host a Social Mobility Summit in partnership with Welsh Government, to kick start a conversation about what we, here in Wales, need to do to create better chances and better outcomes for all of our citizens. Mr Milburn’s sobering remarks to the Summit gave us all a call to action.  We are, he told us, in the midst of a profound social crisis, and one in which the solutions are increasingly being found in agencies beyond governments.

Before Mr Milburn resigned as Chair of the UK Government’s Social Mobility Commission citing concerns over lack of progress towards a fairer Britain, the Commission published its ‘State of the Nation 2017’ report. The report highlighted that almost a quarter of all individuals in Wales live in poverty, with around 26% of people in Wales also earning below the voluntary living wage. This is an area of particular interest to us at the OU in Wales.  Our work is all about supporting adult learners to go beyond their own expectations, to develop their skills and confidence and to access new opportunities.

At the OU we have social mobility at our very core, it is why were created fifty years ago and the need for what we do remains as strong today as it was then. It won’t be news to anyone that post-16 and post-18 choices have a significant impact on social mobility. The entry rate to higher education in Wales is 37.5 per cent compared to 42.5 per cent in England. What’s more, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to travel for university. The same is of course true of adult learners, those with caring responsibilities, those in work and those with disabilities. There can be no doubt from the discussions at our summit that adult education is a key enabler of social mobility both for the individual learner themselves and for their wider family.

It would have been easy during the event to become quickly disheartened at the scale of the problem before us as we heard stories from those working across Wales to tackle the impacts of austerity and to support the most vulnerable among us. But as the Cabinet Secretary for Education herself implored us in her remarks to the event…it’s not about wringing our hands in woe, it’s about rolling up our sleeves and doing the best we can with what we have.  As well as a thought-provoking analysis of the issues before us, we heard from organisations across Wales about what they are doing to close the social mobility gap and make Wales a fairer country, one where we can systematically break down barriers to progression and where life-changing learning enables individuals to succeed and progress.  There is much for us to be proud of, much to build on and yes much more to do but the enthusiasm in the room to collaborate, innovate and create a movement for change was palpable. A heartfelt thank you to everyone who joined us last week. We look forward to seeing what comes next and invite anyone with an interest in this area to work with us to make Wales a social mobility success story.

If you’d like to talk to us about this work contact Michelle Matheron, Policy and Public Affairs Manager.

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